Should we continue to fear another world war?

Opinion: The anniversary of Hiroshima last week gives us cause to commemorate the many thousands killed and injured

‘Bob Dylan has subsequently downplayed the notion that he wrote Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in a hurry because he wasn’t sure he’d have time to finish it. The idea that catastrophe was lurking at our elbow did, nonetheless, add a pungent flavour to cultural endeavours during the four decades that succeeded the second World War.’ Photograph:  Christopher Polk/Getty Images

‘Bob Dylan has subsequently downplayed the notion that he wrote Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in a hurry because he wasn’t sure he’d have time to finish it. The idea that catastrophe was lurking at our elbow did, nonetheless, add a pungent flavour to cultural endeavours during the four decades that succeeded the second World War.’ Photograph: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 00:01

In 1973, the cultural apologist Ernest Becker published a terrifyingly clear-eyed tome entitled The Denial of Death. It would be futile to attempt any comprehensive summary of his theories, but the spine of the argument concerned the notion that civilisation exists to distract us from the certainty of our own mortality.

Such thoughts are triggered by the largely unnoticed passage of Hiroshima Day last week. The anniversary of that Japanese city’s nuclear immolation gives us cause to commemorate the many thousands killed and injured. It invites us to ponder the appalling moral calculations taken during wartime. It used to allow us an opportunity to ponder the continuing, very real possibility of future nuclear Armageddon, but that conversation now seems all but ended.

True, there are still some 4,100 primed nuclear weapons on the planet. Such volatile nations as Pakistan and North Korea have conducted nuclear tests. And the two largest powers in the game of genocidal bluff – Russia and the US – are on far from friendly terms.

Danger of complacency Yet the world seems to have rolled over and, stubbornly shutting out the continuing threat of annihilation, allowed itself to drift into a complacent snooze.

Bob Dylan has subsequently downplayed the notion that he wrote A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in a hurry because he wasn’t sure he’d have time to finish it. The idea that catastrophe was lurking at our elbow did, nonetheless, add a pungent flavour to cultural endeavours during the four decades that succeeded the second World War. The threat was personal and public. As well as pondering the unimaginable collapse of society, the average citizen factored in nuclear conflagration as plausible cause of his or her inevitable death. You might be carried off by a tumour. A car accident might do for you. Then again, you could be one of the several million irradiated in a nuclear dust-up over nothing much in particular.

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought,” Einstein is reported to have said. “But World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Mad agenda By the time the cold war ended in 1989, a notion had got about that the two superpowers – doped up on mutually assured destruction – were never likely to unleash the missiles.

Subsequent digging in the Soviet files revealed quite how much wishful thinking had been going on. In 1983, Lieut Col Stanislav Petrov, duty officer at the USSR’s early warning centre, was alerted that five nuclear weapons had been fired on his nation by the United States. The colonel gambled that he was dealing with a glitch in the system and decided not to alert Yuri Andropov, hawkish general secretary of the Communist Party. It involves only minor hyperbole to suggest that we owe our existence to the clear thinking of Col Petrov (still with us at 75).

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